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Thursday, 27 May 2010

Promotion: The Leeds United Way! - 2009/10 Season Review (Part One)

**Firstly, apologies for the dreadful formatting, the editing tool won't let me adjust it **      Having partially recovered from another Play-off disaster, confidence was high amongst Leeds fans during the close season of 2009. We had a settled club for the first time in years and the manner in which Simon Grayson had gone about getting the team playing in the closing stages of the previous season had many dreaming of promotion - Surely a third season in League One would be our last! However, thoughts of actually celebrating something as a Leeds fan seemed a little too far fetched, for me at least.

The following is a 'look back' at what turned out to be an unforgettable season...

During the Summer Simon Grayson had set about strengthening key areas of what was already a very decent League One squad. Jason Crowe and Patrick Kisnorbo were brought in from Northampton Town and Leicester City respectively, to bolster an area of the team that had been an achilles heel the previous year. Each were signed on a Bosman transfer. Goalkeeper Shane Higgs was a surprise signing from relegated Cheltenham Town to provide competition for Casper Ankergren between the posts.
The Whites served up a very promising pre-season, the highlights being a creditable goalless draw with Newcastle United (and a certain Alan Smith) which was sandwiched between a 1-1 draw with Blackburn Rovers at Elland Road, only succumbing to a last minute penalty and an excellent 2-1 win at Turf Moor over Premiership new boys Burnley.

Meanwhile, Richard Naylor was named club captain after the departure of Frazer Richardson and in typical Leeds United fashion, when all seemed to be going smoothly, the club was rocked by the sale of teenage sensation Fabian Delph. Leeds had agreed a deal with Aston Villa for the player who had ran League One ragged the previous season, predictably Delph joined the Midlands club for an undisclosed fee. All this just hours before the new season was set to commence...

LEEDS UNITED 2 (Beckford 13, 89), EXETER 1 (Russell 73)
United: Higgs, Crowe, Kisnorbo, Marques, Parker (Hughes 28), Snodgrass, Howson, Doyle, Johnson (Robinson 74), Becchio (Showunmi 84), Beckford. Subs: Ankergren, Prutton, Grella, Michalik.
Exeter: Jones, Duffy, Russell, Seabourne, Taylor, Harley, Golbourne, Corr, Cork (Sercombe 90), Edwards (McAllster 60), Stewart (Norwood 70). Subs: Marriott, Tully, Burnell, A-Henville.
Referee: N Miller
Booked: Showunmi (Leeds), Edwards (Exeter).
Sent-off: Corr (Exeter)
Att: 27,681

The disappointing news of Delph's departure was softened (mildly) by the signing of experienced Coventry midfielder Michael Doyle, an all-action, battling 'Batty-esque' type player who would plug the enormous gap left by Fabian's departure. At least that was the plan anyway... News of Robert Snodgrass signing an extension to his current deal was also very welcome. A biggest opening day crowd at Elland Road for 5 years suggested as much.

With hindsight, Leeds' opening game would encapsulate the entire season into just 90 minutes. Grayson handed debuts to the four new recruits, with Michael Doyle partnering stand-in captain Jonny Howson in the centre of the park. Rui Marques started alongside Paddy Kisnorbo, in place of the injured Richard Naylor. 

Leeds started well and a superb, cool finish from Jermaine Beckford on 13 minutes had The Whites seemingly on their way to an easy victory against the League One new-comers. Leeds pressed hard to put the game out of sight but inspired goalkeeping and the woodwork kept them a bay. The impressive Ben Parker limped out of proceedings just before the 30 minute mark and was later ruled our for several months. despite Leeds' superiority, it was 1-0 at the break.

Kisnorbo emerged in the second half, sporting a large head bandage to protect a wound picked up in a first half challenge with Barry Corr, the bandage would be a stalwart for the season as Paddy refused plastic surgery to retain his place in the team. 

With Leeds still pressing for a second goal, their job was made all the more straight forward when ex. Leeds trainee Barry Corr was dismissed for an 'off-the-ball' incident involving Micky Doyle. The whites fans settled back for the inevitable onslaught and a comfortable 3 points... As is often the way with Leeds United, its 'the hard way' or not at all. On 73 minutes Russell bent a magnificent free-kick into the top corner to bring Exeter level. The horrible feeling that goes with watching visiting players scampering over to the South-East corner of the stadium to celebrate, almost in disbelief rather than triumph had returned for another season. The thought of dropping points so early, against such a 'weak' opposition was a terrifying one - we had to win promotion this season.

As the game played out into a familiar, frustrating afternoon, of the like loyal Leeds fans had become very accustomed too in recent years. Some smart play from Enoch Showunmi (an 84th minute replacement for Luciano Becchio) released Jason Crowe down the right as the clock ticked towards a conclusion. Crowe's perfect cross was met by the head of Jermaine Beckford, who directed a powerful header into the net at the 'Kop End'. Elland Road breathed a collective sigh of relief, as much as in celebration.

Beckford had rescued a desperate situation, that at one point seemed almost inevitable - A Theme that would define the season.

As is the case with lower league football, after months of waiting, matches come thick and fast as Leeds headed North to Darlington, a home from home in recent years. The Whites had cancelled a pre-season friendly at the same venue after being drawn against the League Two outfit in the League Cup.

DARLINGTON 0, UNITED 1 (Showunmi 54)
Darlington: Knight, Arnison, Bower, Foster (Plummer 76), Miller, Smith, Lumsdon, Thorpe (Main 79), Smith (Windass 59), Chandler, Dowson. Subs: Bennett, Liversedge, Riley, Convery.
United: Higgs, Crowe, Michalik, Huntington, Hughes, Snodgrass (Robinson 90), Howson, Doyle, Johnson, Showunmi (Becchio 73), Grella (KIlkenny 83). Subs: Ankergren, Sheehan, White.
Referee: N Swarbrick.
Booked: Chandler (Darlington)
Att: 4487

A largely uninspiring match, in which Simon Grayson made several changes to accomodate for injuries and international commitments. The SKY cameras were present on the off chance of a cup shock. Watching from the comfort of my own living room, was an unnerving experience to say the least. Showunmi missed a whole host of chances before finally converting what was probably the most difficult opportunity shortly after the break. Leeds should have gone on to stretch their winning margin but in the end, plenty of spurned chance didn't come back to haunt the Yorkshire men, despite Mark Bower missing a sitter in injury time for the hosts. 

Two wins from two, left fans with more questions than answers. Neither performance had been convincing but as Simon Grayson pointed out after the victory over Exeter, its the points that matter...

Again, with little respite the first team headed for a first ever away trip to Adams Park four days later. A midweek reserve match had produced a 5-1 win over Newcastle United's second string with four goals from forgotten man, Tresor Kandol. Trialist, Mariano Tripodi scored the other... he was never heard of again. 

WYCOMBE 0, UNITED 1 (Becchio 61)
Wycombe: Shearer, Smith (Green 77), Oliver, Duberry, Woodman, Phillips, Montrose, Mousinho, Westlake (Pittman 62), Zebroski, Harrold (Beavon 73). Subs: Young, Johnson, Westwood, Spiller.
United: Higgs, Crowe, Marques, Kisnorbo, Hughes, Snodgrass (Prutton 84), Howson, Doyle, Johnson, Beckford, Becchio (Showunmi 90). Subs: Ankergren, Kilkenny, Grella, Michalik, Robinson.
Referee: S Attwell
Booked: Beckford, Howson (United).
Att: 8,400

Leeds returned to near full strength at Wycombe, with Ben Parker the only absentee from the opening day. Despite his midweek heroics against Newcastle, Kandol didn't make the eighteen and Mike Grella had to make do with a place on the bench despite signing a contract extension a few days earlier.

Its usually at this point in the season that Leeds' failings become clear, having failed to win their 2nd league game of the season in 4 or the previous 5 attempts. A Wycombe team who had so far struggled with life in League One, seemed likely candidates for a typical Leeds, below par performance in a tight ground, packed to the rafters. 

The opening exchanges suggested as much, as both teams struggled to get a grip of proceedings with the home team clearly 'up' for the big match. The half came to a close with Leeds showing early signs of having a little too much quality for the hosts and just after the hour mark, Becchio fired an excellent, low shot into the far corner of the net from 20 yards. Snodgrass was influential in the build up before feeding Becchio who turned and fired Leeds into the lead, to the delight of the travelling Whites behind the goal.

Leeds saw the rest of the game out with little trouble, although in injury time Shane Higgs produced an excellent save, tipping a speculative Stuart Green effort onto the post, denying the league new-comers their first point.

A second unconvincing league victory of the new season had fans wondering if there was more to come from Simon Grayson's men or if this was the sum total of a team, who's luck would surely run out at some point of the season. 

Again with barely time to draw breath, we headed for The Banks's Stadium, Walsall (presumably another stupid naming rights decision). This would usually be a game that would get my full attention but following the abject display there the previous year, I thought better of it. Couple that with my missus being in the latter stages of pregnancy, I sat back, phone in hand, laptop on knee and Jeff Stelling's midweek replacement on TV, his name escapes me.

WALSALL 1 (Parkin pen 80), UNITED 2 (Johnson 83, Beckford 87)
WalsallInce, Hughes, Smith, Jones (Nicholls 86), Bradley, Westlake, Till, Vincent, Richards (Taundry 30), Parkin, Deeney. Subs: Weston, Sansara, Roberts, O'Keefe, Gilmartin.
UnitedHiggs, Crowe, Kisnorbo, Marques, Hughes (Robinson 72), Snodgrass (Prutton 90), Howson, Doyle (Kilkenny 72), Johnson, Beckford, Becchio. Subs: Ankergren, Grella, Michalik, Showunmi.
BookedSnodgrass (United)
Att8483 (3679 Leeds)

Following calls from assistant boss Glynn Snodin for United to start from the first whistle, following a sluggish opening at Wycombe, Leeds threw it all at Walsall. Snodgrass, Hughes, Howson all went close early on and Beckford had a header palmed onto a post as Leeds looked for an early breakthrough. 
As is often the case with Leeds, the missed opportunities fuelled confidence in the opposition and Walsall came back into the game before half-time with plenty of play and a few decent chances. Beckford had several opportunities to give Leeds the lead as The Whites were reduced to playing on the counter attack, an assistants flag ruled out what appeared to be the opener.
The second half continued in much the same vein, with Beckford passing up each opportunity to set Leeds on their way. On 77 minutes 'disaster struck' (I hate how the official site reports that, we already know! stop making it worse)  as Rui Marques inexplicably lunged into a challenge on a Walsall forward who was being forced into touch by Andy Hughes... PENALTY! Nobody could argue, it was just another fixture that was going to get away from Leeds, in what was an infuriating familiar fashion. Parkin despatched the penalty and that would be that... my phone beeped to give me the bad news as the Sky Sports reporter shared the news in what always seems to be such a smug fashion when Leeds are losing. Same old Leeds!
My subsequent lack of interest was stirred within a matter of minutes as the internet messageboard I was following displayed the familiar fan favourite 'GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLL'. Trying to come to terms with this, and trying desperately to secure an official confirmation was heart stopping. Annoyingly, the triumphant post was the last on the current page I was viewing, so an age passed as the popular site struggled with the traffic presumably all trying to navigate to that next page. Official confirmation came via the various mediums and Leeds were back in it, a diving header from Bradley Johnson had Leeds on terms (no seriously!). As the elusive page finally arrived on my screen, the number of celebratory posts had taken the thread onto a further page which again took a lifetime to load. However, load it did and I was greeted with the initial post '2-1' - "What, to who?" I screamed at the posters inconsiderate contribution. It soon became apparent that Leeds had turned the game on its head and Beckford had scored a beauty to give Leeds another 3 points in a situation that looked lost. Jermaine controlled a long ball, with his back to goal before taking everyone by surprise and hooking the ball into the net from 25 yards. 
Leeds were on a roll, a somewhat unconvincing roll but a roll nonetheless. Nine points from the three opening games saw The Whites joint top of League One with Colchester and Charlton. A very promising start indeed but as we all know Leeds have an unnatural ability to pluck despair from the joys of ecstasy...
Next time out was a return to Elland Road against a Tranmere side in disarray. John Barnes had taken them from Play-off hopefuls to relegation certainties in just a matter of weeks... which Leeds team would turn up? Find out (lets pretend you don't already know) in Part Two...
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